The child holds a crucial spot in every society. He is also not only vital to the realities of the present, he also determines the eventualities of the future. If he is not driving the society, he is a co-pilot. If he is not a co-pilot, he is the traffic warden. If he is not the traffic warden, then he is unavoidably the next in line to the driver’s seat. And so the question of societal progress is substantially answered by this child, and the equation of national development is for none but him to solve.
The protection of the child should therefore be priority in every society of the world. This is even more so for a country like Nigeria where the average age is eighteen. The needs of the child should be met that he may in turn meet the needs of the nation. His gifts should be harnessed that he may in turn harness the gifts of the nation. And his growth must be prioritised that he may in turn foster national growth and development.
At its Seventh Congress, the United Nations (UN) affirmed this truth in approving the Standard Minimum Rules for the Administration of Juvenile Justice in 1985. In the preamble, it is written that the UN recognizes: That the young, owing to their early stage of human development, require particular care and assistance with regard to physical, mental and social development and require legal protection in conditions of peace, freedom, dignity and security.
Nigeria’s Child Rights Act of 2003 has introduced a great deal of child-friendly and progressive legal measures. But the fact that the law provides for the education, good health, safety and protection of the child is only the beginning. It is not enough. It is the duty of the society to also see to the effective implementation of the letters of the law, and ensure that the average child benefits from the goodwill of the lawmakers. For this reason, due attention must be paid to the justice system, where rights and duties – including of and for the child – are enforced.
During his recent visit to Nigeria, Bill Gates, the world’s second richest man, reminded us that one in three children is chronically malnourished and could be at risk of stunting. This fact does not have a direct bearing on the justice system, but it reflects the level of neglect suffered by the Nigerian child, which inevitably has penetrated the doors into the compounds of justice.
Though the law prescribes for underage offenders to be remanded in juvenile homes, we many of them instead in typical prisons, wining and dining with adult convicts. Just last year, the Chief Judge of Lagos State, Justice Olufunmilayo Atilade, granted pardon to 209 juvenile offenders detained in various prisons across the state. Many of these child-inmates are accused of petty crimes or even whipped up charges. Yet they are locked up with much older criminals, in overcrowded prison cells, living in the worst of living conditions.
The police would arrest children indiscriminately on the streets or upon the request of a Nigerian big man, they charge them to court without any legal aid or even just remand them without trial, they jack up their ages so they can keep them in the prison among adult offenders, and treat them just as bad as others. This is a pattern that recurs every now and then, with different victims each time – every one of them innocent, naïve, or at least deserving of fair hearing and just treatment.
In a nutshell, a lot of progress has been made but a lot more still has to be done if we truly want to protect the Nigerian child from injustice – whether as a complainant or as a defendant. Our police need to be reoriented and stopped from maltreating children in the name of law enforcement. Our courts need to have designated judges and designated family courts for children. Our prison system needs more jails meant only for children so that they are mixed up with and influenced by hardened criminals. And more correctional centres need to spring as well as borstal institutions. We certainly do not have enough.
Apart from these, it is high time our child justice system shifted focus away from custodial to non-custodial sentencing. The best form of reformation for children is not to be locked up in walls and away from society. It is not to subject them to psychological torture. It is to empower them, make them feel useful, give them a sense of belonging and a sense of purpose. And these cannot be achieved in prison walls, but in centres specially structured for the purpose. If at all a child is sentenced to prison, it must be for a definite number of years, for a serious offence committed over and over, and for the greater good of the society – not merely out of the urge to punish.
Again the child occupies a crucial spot in the dynamics of any society, and it is only natural that this is reflected in such society’s temple of justice. For centuries, the Latin maxim, let justice be done even it heaven falls, has been thought an ideal all stakeholders in the justice system should aspire towards. This is remarkable, but a little tweak is hereby proposed as a similar ideal worthy of our admiration and labour. Let justice be done even if it were for a child.
Written by: ‘Kunle Adebajo, Volunteer, Child and Youth Protection Foundation